December 10, 2013 Last Updated 10:37 am

Interview with Chicago Review Press publisher Cynthia Sherry

Book publisher celebrates its 40th year, launches new website to sell its print and eBooks, expands online sales outlets even as brick and mortar bookstores decline

Recently TNM asked several magazine publishers and digital publishing platform owners about the changes they are seeing in the sales environment for digital magazines. Over the next few months TNM will look at some of the challenges book publishers face as they deal with the rise of eBooks and the issues of discoverability and distribution.

Chicago Review Press is celebrating its 40th year of publishing this year, and publishes about 65 new titles a year. Recently the publisher launched a new website with the help of Orbit Media Studios. The publisher has five imprints: Ball Publishing, which publishes works for both the professional and home gardener; Lawrence Hill Books, which publishes non-fiction titles of interest to African-Americans; Zephyr Press, which publishes resource material for teachers; and its own two lines of books, of which one is for children.

CS-featureCynthia Sherry, who has been with Chicago Review Press for 24 years, started out in the accounting department, before working her way up to comptroller. Then in 1995 she moved over to the editorial side and has been the publisher for the past nine years.

Sherry, despite being publisher, has her hands in title acquisitions. “We’re a smaller company, so I’ve always done acquisitions since being on the editorial side,” Sherry told TNM.

“We work really collaboratively with our authors. We don’t pay the large advances that the New York houses do, so we’re a little more conservative on that front. But we pay decent advances.”

“For us it’s all about the content, it starts out with the book. The book-idea and the book itself,” Sherry said. “We feel we are in the content business, and eBooks are just another format for us for delivering that content.”

“Print is still our primary format, but eBooks are now representing about 18 percent of our net sales. Last year they were 12 percent, the year before that they were 7 percent. So it is certainly a growing part of the business.”

Sherry sees the big change in the business centering on where the publisher is now selling their titles.

“We got into eBooks very early when the technology became available and started converting our back list, and the formats are pretty standard, basically straight conversions to Kindle, ePub, Mobipocket, PDF,” Sherry said.

“What we’ve seen is a big change. In the last couple of years is the increase in the number of eBook vendors. A few years ago we were selling to about a dozen eBook accounts, and that was standard for a couple of years. Today, we have over a hundred eBook vendors and we’re adding new ones every month. So that is the big change. It’s not just Kindle and Apple.”

Chicago Review Press looks for new vendors, but also is approached by new vendors on an ongoing basis. Because of this, the publisher is also seeing new business models being used – subscriptions, for instance, rather than simply sales.

CRP-website-lgThe company currently produces eBooks along with their print books, but has yet to start publishing interactive eBooks.

“But that’s kind of my new horizon, my push for the year is to create some enhanced eBooks, books with embedded video, and really capitalizing on what eBooks can do.”

We discussed the problems with interactive eBooks, though – that while converting text-heavy print books to digital is relatively easy, going the other way – from interactive eBooks to other formats – remains a challenge. “There has been a lot of energy and excitement about eBooks. But what we’ve seen is that the back-end technology is talking a little longer to get up to speed,” Sherry said.

Looking at the Chicago Review Press website one sees that a large portion of the staffing is dedicated to publicity rather than production or acquisitions, so we discussed the importance of publicity, and the issue of discoverability.

“We don’t have large advertising budgets, big marketing budgets, so we put a lot of emphasis on publicity, and really quality publicity. A lot of the traditional book review coverage, those sections in newspapers, have been slashed, closed down,” Sherry said.

“The big shift for us has been to go after feature writers, as opposed to book review editors, and to push our authors more as an expert, or a story around our authors. We encourage our authors to write op-ed pieces. We’ve also focused a little bit more on regional ties, because the national stuff is getting harder and harder.”

The reduction of physical books stores has, of course, effected book publishers.

“You know, it’s a real shame. I’m definitely concerned about that,” Sherry said.

“In the eighties, there was a big wave when the chain bookstores came along. We saw hundreds of independent bookstores go out of business throughout the country, and what ended up remaining were these really strong, really focused, really smart independent bookstores. But over the last couple of years, with the dominance of Amazon, which put Borders out of business, we’re starting to see even those strong independents going out of business,“ Sherry said.

“What we’ve seen is a big change in the last couple of years is the increase in the number of eBook vendors.”

“That’s a real shame because I see the bookstore owners, bookstore managers as sort of gatekeepers of quality books, curators – and they are really important for discoverability.”

But Chicago Review Press also has been seeing that new retail outlets are opening up as retail stores add books as part of their goods. Sherry pointed to Marbles the Brain Store as an example.